Ronald Reagan's hospitalization and intestinal surgery come at a difficult moment in his presidency. Not that there could be a good moment for the sort of major surgery he has undergone, but the timing comes amid signs of new and greater political disarray in Washington.
Congress, returning from its long Fourth of July break and preparing to recess soon for the rest of the summer, displayed even more frustration and fractiousness than usual last week -- and more evidence of its inability to deal effectively with the difficult but critical problems before it.
By any measure, its return was not a happy one. The hijack murderers of Americans remained free, terrorists remained unchecked, huge federal deficits continued to mount, the tax-simplification plan that the president intended to leave as his great domestic legacy lay aborning. The lawmakers didn't deal with any of these. They did take legislative action on another front, the shameful one of -- get this! -- easing, not strengthening, gun control laws. Reagan stands as the latest presidential example of the need for stronger gun-control laws.
The so-called budget compromise was a charade, and everyone knew it. It would not seriously reduce the deficit. It failed to deal with the reasons for the geometrically escalating mountain of new and historically high national debt -- the famous Reagan tax cuts, the rise in defense spending, the payments for entitlement programs, most notably Social Security. All these remained basically off-limits in the deal struck.
Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole's strong denunciation of the budget agreement was the most striking sign of the anger felt by many on the Hill. He did not spare the president, either. "The president says no taxes; Tip House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. says no COLAs. They're saying they've got a deal. I don't know if it's a deal. I think it's surrendering to the deficit."
And that was before the news about the president's surgery.
This sort of display of temper by Republicans about their Republican president signals trouble in the most normal of times. Removal of the president from the process, however briefly, seems certain to contribute to a further sense of drift and frustration among the lawmakers.
Ronald Reagan has not been a hands-on president. His dealings with Congress bear little resemblance to the intimate methods of congressional maneuver and personal persuasion employed by Lyndon B. Johnson to get passage of desired legislation and programs, for instance. But Reagan remains central to any hopes for real action on tax reform, or for leading the way to real deficit reduction.
The danger is that his illness will contribute to a further distancing of the president from the political process similar to what happened during Dwight D. Eisenhower's second term a generation ago.
That Eisenhower analogy is worth recalling for other reasons.
Eisenhower was our last president to serve two full terms. His popularity was immense. The emotions he stirred were different from the passions -- intense love and hate alike -- generated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. His hold on the public was much the same as Reagan's today.
Like Reagan, Eisenhower created a benign feeling in the country. In the Eisenhower years, the great majority of Americans felt a collective state of contentment. They do so again in the Reagan era. Neither period was marked by a public desire for new national adventures or a taste for seriously grappling with old national problems. Both were reactions to the tensions and strains of the immediate past -- the Depression and World War II preceding the Eisenhower presidency of the 1950s; the civil rights revolution, the traumas of Vietnam and the destruction of presidential leadership from Kennedy to Nixon setting the political stage for the Reagan presidency of the 1980s.
I'm convinced that a major factor in Reagan's reelection was the desire on the part of Americans to restore presidential continuity to our national life. After so many years of division and shocking turnover of leadership, people hungered for a greater sense of stability and security -- and, yes, for a reassuring feeling of national strength, too, much as they felt during the Eisenhower years.
When he left office, Eisenhower was the oldest man to serve as president. He had just passed his 70th birthday. Reagan, of course, is the only man to begin a second term well into his seventies. Ike's second term was marked by serious illness that incapacitated him and required his hospitalization. He became, as the years passed, more and more removed from the political battles of Washington.
The hope here, and surely the hope of every American, is that history does not repeat itself. Instead, all Americans are united in hoping that the fabled Reagan good luck holds true again, that he recovers fully and quickly returns to leadership in the White House.
Continuity does count in national affairs. So does strong presidential leadership. The political events of last week in Washington demonstrated the need for Ronald Reagan to be more active, not less.